A Nevada church is again asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider its challenge of the state’s coronavirus restrictions on religious gatherings, despite the high court’s earlier refusal to grant an emergency injunction.
In May, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak invoked a 50-person cap on religious gatherings while allowing many Nevada businesses—including casinos and restaurants—to reopen at 50% of capacity.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley argued that Sisolak’s order was in violation of the First Amendment, specifically the free exercise clause.
“There is no constitutional right to gamble, but there is one that protects attending worship services,” said David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the religious liberty law firm representing the church.
In a 5-4 ruling, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s four liberal members to form the majority vote, the Supreme Court decided in July to decline Calvary’s petition to be granted the same COVID-19 restrictions and allowances the state of Nevada had in place for casinos, restaurants and other businesses.
In late September, Sisolak issued a new executive order (Directive 033) allowing places of worship to host “the lesser of 250 persons or 50% of the listed fire code capacity.” Yet many Nevadans consider this to still be a disadvantage to churches.
“Directive 033 allows even more secular venues, such as museums, art galleries, zoos and aquariums, to assemble at 50% fire-code capacity with no hard cap,” Calvary’s newest lawsuit reads. “And it allows convention centers to host four times as many attendees—up to 1,000—as churches. So the governor’s preference for secular entities over religious entities remains. What’s more, the governor is free to go back to the previous order at any time.”
ADF lawyers believe that this case is “an ideal vehicle to solve the nationwide problem of government discrimination against churches in ad hoc COVID-19 orders.” Although, they warned that “time is of the essence.”
If the Supreme Court doesn’t agree to take up the case by January, “it is a practical impossibility that oral argument will be heard and an opinion issued before the end of the [court’s] 2020 term,” ADF lawyers said. They estimate that Nevada churches and worshipers would then have to wait a “minimum of 15-18 months” before any change to Sisolak’s order could be made.
“Any delay will cause historically severe damage to First Amendment rights,” they cautioned.
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